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Young 'honorary Marine' who battled cancer thriving at military college

Matthew Pierce, a cancer survivor with a lifelong dream of becoming a Marine, is presented with an honorary membership into the Marine Corps League's Lance Cpl. John J Van Gyzen Detachment 1285.

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By MICHAEL HOLTZMAN | The Herald News | Published: September 7, 2017

SOMERSET, Mass. (Tribune News Service)  — A few weeks from his 22nd birthday, an honorary member of the Marine Corps League's Somerset Detachment No. 1285 is making his mark under extraordinary circumstances.

Matthew Pierce, now starting his junior year at Norwich University in central Vermont, has for years battled a rare bone cancer that's required extensive surgery and chemotherapy treatment.

Yet, when Pierce resumed his sophomore year after a one-year medical absence, he achieved a 4.0 GPA last spring and an A+ average for the full term.

In early August, as he entered his junior year, Pierce was tapped as a cadre platoon sergeant. As such, he was tasked with orienting and training two-dozen platoon "rooks" within the Corps of Cadets program as they began their freshman year at Norwich.

He and his father Steven Pierce, a professor at the Naval War College in Newport and retired Navy senior chief petty officer, explained the long road before and after his surgery at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center to remove his malignant tumor.

After he was diagnosed in the fall of 2015 with Ewing's sarcoma, surgeons removed the mass and a rear portion of his skull.

To replace the tissue, they inserted a titanium plate and a turned around part of his right trapezius, a large muscle connecting from his upper back and shoulder bone to the lower part of his skull.

It fills the missing tissue from this often-recurring form of cancer that affects children and adolescents up to about age 20 — his age when diagnosed two years ago near his birthday.

There are residual effects.

"I have some short-term memory loss. I forget some things. It bothers me," Matt said matter-of-factly this week.

"I think he's coped with it really well, in a really constructive way. He's not fearless. He understands the seriousness and has a lot of uncertainty to have to deal with," said Steven Pierce.

The encouraging news is that every three months when the young college student has undergone imagining and blood screenings for this genetic form of cancer, including a month ago, the results have shown no evidence of the disease, his father said.

Many months of chemotherapy preceded his surgery and continued afterward, said his father.

It was weeks before the surgery that members of the Lance Cpl. John J. Van Gyzen IV Marine Corps League became aware of Matt's medical battle and aspirations to join the Marines.

League commander Bruce Aldrich brought together his Marine Corps League members, a Young Marines contingent from the Battleship Massachusetts and the mother of Van Gyzen — killed at in Iraq on July 5, 2004 — to welcome Matt Pierce into their military family.

"He's such an inspiration. I just can't believe how well he's doing from all that he's gone through," Aldrich said.

Pierce's childhood dream and one-time plans to become a commissioned Marine officer have been derailed by his serious medical condition. That's because he has a pre-existing prosthesis with his skull plate and his form of cancer can reoccur, and he apparently would not be eligible for deployment, Steven Pierce said.

Instead, Matt pivoted and changed his major from war and peace to criminal justice with a goal of becoming a federal law enforcement officer.

His father added, "As a parent I just couldn't be more proud."

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